this article was published in:

FOCAS Forum On Contemporary Art & Society,
Vol. 6 Regional Animalities,
The Substation/FOCAS Singapore 2007

pages 210 to 223

Ecology Reimagined: Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic Compulsions in the Work of Chang Yoong Chia.

Gabrielle Low

As a scientific discipline that examines the relationship between organisms and their environment, ecology’s empiricism belongs to a domain of hard objectivity, field observations, hypotheses, analyses and theories. Textbook illustrations- its closest brush with art- depict ecological interdependence with more condensed precision than imagination, reducing the cycles of life and death, birth and decay, to schematic arrows, diagrams and charts.

In the work of Chang Yoong Chia, however, the ecological landscape is governed by an obsessive imagination. More importantly, human-animal relations, as seen through his work, retain their bonds to question of being and mortality. A predator is bound to its prey not by a schematic arrow, but by the teeth it has lodged into its prey’s neck. A woman is bound to the animals that haunt her by the panic that contorts her face. A bird in rigor mortis has already begun to attract ants.

A 32-year-old Malaysian, Chang recently completed the year-long Rimbun Dahan visual artists’ residency programme, run by Angela Hijjas, a nature conservationist and long-time supporter of the arts, and financed by the architecture firm Hijjas Kasturi Associates. Chang’s residency culminated in the exhibition Flora and Fauna II, which pursued his fixations with nature and self. Here, in the interior of the artist’s imagination, relations between creatures unfold within crowded, monochromatic landscapes where animals with human qualities and humans with animal qualities creep, stalk, jostle, intrigue and furtively observe one another and you, the viewer. Imagine the Cheshire cat and his unsettlingly impenetrable grin- then imagine a canvas with dozens of Cheshire animals, all with equally enigmatic expressions which hint that they know something you don’t. Somewhat dogmatically, Chang avoids preparing preliminary studies for his compositions and prefers instead to let the composition evolve organically as he paints, allowing one image to emerge after another because the first image, somehow, according to some indeterminable logic, implies the second. As a result, all the humans, animals and plants that populate his canvases are intimately linked. But it is not just the form and the figures that gradually take shape through that process; moods and emotions go through that same evolution. The result is that the disparate parts within each painting interlock in content as well as form.

Fig 1: Chang Yoong Chia, Web (2006), oil on canvas, 224cm x 112cm

As an artist, Chang’s strength is his attention to detail. This is apparent not just in his capacity to observe the texture of the hair on an orang utan’s back or the creases on the feet of birds, but also his ability to observe himself in detail, to sometimes be his own damning witness. As a result, Chang’s work appears, on one level, to be a refracted version of reality, where the instincts and impulses of the artist have acted on and altered the givens of the external world. Sometimes, snapshots of the physical world are transposed onto his canvas intact, but more frequently they are adapted, dramatized or subverted.

The order imposed by taxonomic units is often scrambled and rearranged to create hybrid beings- a rabbit’s head is transposed into the body of a dog in one painting, onto that of a bird in another and, in a third, onto the body of a man in shirtsleeves and necktie. On one level, however, his work is personal. Each canvas is a world that pulsates with emotional and expressive content, mediated through symbols derived from nature and, in particular, animals. In Night Comes Suddenly (See fig.4), the sense of dizzying vertigo that appears in the wide-open eyes of a female figure and the outstretched arms of a male figure seem to parallel the exaggerated stretch of a camel’s neck and the way an orang utan seems to reach for something that isn’t there.

For a painter whose artistic vocabulary is derived from the minutest details and observations of the world around him, Malaysia- a country so heterogeneous that the crisis of identity is a national condition- provides a spectrum of cultural attitudes towards animals. As Malaysians, our relationship with animals is as complicated as our collective sense of identity. Animals are the objects of our reverence, our fear, our contempt, our dreams, our amusement and our compassion. Some animals haunt us, some heal us and some are seen as portents of disaster. And so in Chang’s work, the zoological landscape is saturated with suggestions of the various cultural approaches towards animals and nature. The animals on his canvases can be our antagonists in one instance, our allies in another.

Fig 2: Chang Yoong Chia, Full Moon (2005), oil on canvas, 64cm x 56cm

The association of animals with mystery and mysticism creep up again and again in Chang’s canvases, though not in a straightforward manner. At the corner of one painting, the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha is depicted within the recess of an anthill. The calm enveloping the figure may suggest that it is located within a sanctified alcove. But at the same time, the shadowy cavity of the anthill, framed by jagged edges, is a little darker, a little less benign that what one might expect to see in a place of worship. Ganesha, his face partially obscured by shadows, also recalls a film noir character. All at once the image seems to imply mysticism, threat and drama. The unexpected levity of the painting’s title, Happy Garden (See fig.7), and the surrounding tableau of seemingly disparate images does little to help us settle the ambiguity that Chang has intentionally crafted into the work.

At times, animals are culturally regarded with revulsion. The same impulse leads us to use animal references in our everyday profanities and racial epithets (the latter being of particular relevance in ethnically-mixed Malaysia). Many of Chang’s creatures provoke a visceral recoil. For me, there is an inexplicable horror about seeing masses of scales and feathers, and the intermingling of human hair and animal fur on the same creature. Chang seems to know this.

Fig 3: Chang Yoong Chia, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (2006), oil on canvas, 224cm x 112cm

There is yet another cultural approach- preserved among Malaysia’s indigenous, animistic traditions- that conceives of all things in the world as coequal. Thus the extent of the world is not simply measured according to its human population but according to the totality of existence. One example of this worldview can be seen in the belief system of the Mah Meri, one of Malaysia indigenous communities, who hold that all creatures were once able to take on any form of their choosing. If the animals in Mah Meri cosmology seem anthropomorphic, it is because they once had the ability to become human, and vice versa. This fluid conception of what is human and what is animal represents yet anther approach to anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. It has analogues in Chang’s work, most visibly in the way that human and animals traits are fused in the same creature. It should be pointed out, though, that his humans and animals are cross-breeds, not just because they have been cobbled together from an array of human and animal body parts, but because we see in the humans a state of animality and we see in the animals traces of human qualities.

Fig 4: Chang Yoong Chia, Night Comes Suddenly (2006), oil on canvas, 340cm x 64cm

But it would be too exotic, too selective and too convenient to point out only the aspects of Chang’s work that conform to Asian or localized cultural approaches towards animals. After all, Chang belongs to a generation of young Malaysian artists who seem to have shrugged off the old postcolonial chip on the shoulder and the accompanying love-hate relationship with the West. Just as importantly, it is difficult to compartmentalize him according to the national borders and regional trends because the intuitive and personal dimensions of his work are not bound by culture and geography.

Fig 5: Chang Yoong Chia, The Cavern (2006), oil on eggshell mounted on clockwork, 6.3cm (height) x 4.8cm (widest diameter)

Not all his symbols, therefore, are autochthonous. Scattered throughout his work are painted homages to Kafka- spiders bearing human faces- and the unmistakably biblical depiction of women with serpents. Elsewhere, a woman lies beside a lion that looks like it could belong to a C.S. Lewis novel, creating what seems like Narnia overlaid with eroticism. There’s also the element of magic realism in his work: manyof his rabbits are bipedal, other seems to have digits capable of fine manipulation, while the two that dominate Night Comes Suddenly seem to lose themselves in a kiss. Images adrift unresolved between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Then there are the references drawn from popular culture. The harsh biological reality of a lion plunging his teeth into a goat’s neck and he elegant silhouettes of birds perched on a tree have a distinct familiarity because we have become accustomed to seeing these images in nature documentaries and wildlife photography. From comic books and horror movies come more playful images, such as a stream of winged animals amidst a cloudy night sky and oversized insects. Some of the images deliberately complicate the depictions of animals in popular media. Chang’s ape in Full Moon (See fig.2) may be somewhat reminiscent of King Kong- but in his outstretched arms and slightly upturned gaze, he is almost just as reminiscent of a crucified Christ. Similarly, the fuzziness of a rabbit denotes not endearment, as we could expect, but rather the moon’s dispersed glow on a cloudy night.

Fig 6: Chang Yoong Chia, A Pickup at the Train Station (2006), oil on canvas, 170cm x 64cm

The rabbit as Chang’s alter ego deserves a special mention in this context. Rabbit feature prominently in Chang’s artwork because, as a child, his family kept pet rabbits that, as expected began to reproduce prolifically. When they started displaying signs of aggression, the family eliminated the problem by slaughtering the rabbits for food. In Chang’s mind, rabbits were henceforth associated with dark impulses. Although this is a story Chang has repeated many times, it is not crucial to understanding his work. Their menacing countenance in his paintings gives us enough hints as to the expressive content they represent in his work.

While the scenes from contemporary culture may seem familiar, the symbolism of each painted narrative is more opaque. The story that Chang tells on each canvas is his, so we may never know the exact meaning signified by each mammal, reptile or insect. And it would be less compelling if we did know. His creatures suggest more than they state. Engaging with his work, therefore, means sliding from one layer of interpretation to another. You could stop at one level of exegesis and satisfy yourself with the thought that you’ve solved the puzzle. You could, also, think about it some more and consider other possibilities. In Screaming Rabbit, a black rabbit painted on the silvery luminescence of a seashell screams; whether it is out of delight or fear we may never know. Perhaps in the way the rabbit’s ears are drawn back and in the way his forelegs stretch outwards, we are meant to read it as a twisted existential cry to an indifferent world, an image that could take its cue from Munch. It is not that Chang’s craft is inexact- the ambiguity is deliberate. He does not give us the luxury of finite meaning. That would be too easy. By provoking us to react to his work with frustration, alarm, amusement, disdain- and by withholding clarifications and explanations from us- he invites to engage with paintings. It’s hard to view his work with disinterest. In Chang’s universe, the relations of interdependence extend beyond the canvas to include the viewer.

Fig 7: Chang Yoong Chia, Happy Garden (2005), oil on canvas, 158cm x 158cm

Admist the numerous possible self-portraits in Flora and Fauna II, one instance of reflexivity stands out. At the centre of the canvas in Happy Garden, an army of tiny men- presumably, Chang- appear to be constructing a massive human form out of bricks, as if telling us that Chang is constructing an image of himself on canvas.

There is another way to read his work- to see the work as being more about moods and mental, emotional and ethical conditions.

Chang has mentioned, on more than one occasion, his admiration for the work of Egon Schiele, the Viennese Expressionist painter who used turbulent lines and colours to produce raw and acute portraits that undressed all the harshest, ugliest and most desolate regions of the soul. While Chang’s work clearly differs in form and while his worlds is considerably less bleak, there is a similar attempt at excavating internal realities.

There is a sense in which Chang’s animals refer to human qualities. Many of the animals refer to human qualities. Many of the animals, most often the rabbits, have eyes glossed with he intelligence, emotion and danger that we recognize in human eyes, while others seem to have the human capacity for knowledge, malice and grief. In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (See fig.3), a large rabbit-headed bat glides directly into the viewer’s path, its eyes bearing a cold intensity that borders almost on malevolence. In some of his most compelling pieces, he effectively elicits in the viewer the vertigo of looking into another person’s eyes, even when those eyes are lodged within the sockets of animals. The creatures, whose anthropomorphism often lies solely in their very human eyes, escape our attempts to objectify them. Instead they force us to return their gaze and respond intuitively, as we would when confronted with another person.

But there is also a sense in which Chang’s animals seem to hint at animal qualities within humans. The animals in his canvases are not simply curiosities in a zoological garden. They embody animal compulsions- sexual drive, hunger, fear. In The Cavern (See fig.5), an aroused rabbit-like being tries to seize a creature with a body of a bird and the head of a terrified girl. Both the violence and vulnerability captured in the image are intimate and introspective depictions of what is primal, physical and instinctive.

The use of animal imagery becomes not just appropriate, but inevitable.